20th Century American History for Teens

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History is a HUGE subject. Scholars can spend a lifetime just studying one tiny portion of it – The Marshall Plan or the Civil Rights Movement or the legacy of Georgia O’Keefe or any of a thousand other topics. 

We cannot realistically expect our kids to become experts on a subject as mind-bogglingly complex as “20th Century American History,” but we can provide an overview of stories, people and events that will provide a base for understanding current events and future study.

Learning is all about making connections with things you already know or understand. The great thing about Charlotte Mason’s principle of using “living books” instead of sterile textbooks is that children connect with ideas better when told from a personal viewpoint or in a well-written story. When we read aloud great historical fiction to young children (such as Little House on the Prairie), they connect to the story because they recognize in it elements from their own lives. The reader can empathize with the universal themes of Laura’s childhood – misbehavior, family relationships or night-time fears. But the reader also picks up a lot of history along the way. Heating bath water on the stove? Making cheese from scratch? No cars or paved roads? Indians on horses?

As children get older, they can still learn a lot from living books, but their books will be more sophisticated. They are also ready to do more analysis of conflicting viewpoints. There’s never just one way to interpret history and the sooner kids learn that historians don’t always agree with each other, the sooner they’ll realize they have to think for themselves.

Following is a list of books and DVDs I recommend for a one year course covering the major topics of the 20th Century. Again, this list is not meant to be comprehensive but it will help link together all the big events your teens may already have learned about, plus an interesting mix of cultural, economic, art, sports and science history to put things in context. Your kids could either read these books themselves or trade off reading aloud as a family (we did both).

Here’s the backbone texts:

An Age of Extremes: 1880-1917 A History of US Book 8

War, Peace, and All That Jazz: 1918-1945 A History of US Book 9

All the People: Since 1945 A History of US Book 10

My kids and I are big fans of Joy Hakim’s US history books (I haven’t tried her other books yet). They are well-written, engaging and include an appealing mix of stories, photos, quotes from primary source documents and political cartoons. No historian can be completely unbiased however and her books, though fair, have a progressive slant to them. So . . .

Just to stir things up, read these:

World War I: The Rest of the Story and How It Affects You Today, 1870 to 1935 (Uncle Eric Book)

World War II: The Rest of the Story and How It Affects You Today, 1930 to September 11, 2001 (Uncle Eric Book)

The Thousand Year War in the Mideast: How It Affects You Today (An Uncle Eric Book)

We have read a number of Richard Maybury’s books because they present subjects and points of view rarely taught in typical public schools. He makes no apologies for his libertarianish interpretation of history (he does not consider himself a libertarian exactly but he explains himself well in his books – you’ll see), but he is very conscientious about documenting his assertions. My only complaint is that he tends to repeat points over and over again – so much that my kids began finishing his sentences for him towards the end of a book. They were not as engagingly written as Hakim’s books but I can think of no better way to show how historical “truth” can be manipulated by those in power. Some of Maybury’s more alarming explanations inspired a flurry of independent fact checking and research to see if he was right.

After reading these and other books, my kids have concluded that history is really interesting (they love it actually) and that you can’t always believe what people tell you. They know the difference between a primary source and a secondary source, and understand the concept of propaganda. It also really helps them understand what’s happening in the world today.

If your kids have time and interest, historical fiction is still an invaluable way to round out their understanding of certain events. I won’t attempt to create a list of all the wonderful books out there because your selection should be determined by personal interest. One great resource to help you find living books is Let the Authors Speak: A Guide to Worthy Books Based on Historical Setting. Unfortunately, I think this book is out of print but you may be able to find one used. Another good way to find appropriate fiction is to check the online gift stores or web sites of historical monuments/museums. The curators of these places are usually very knowledgeable about what is available on their subject and eager to spread the word.

Some home-school curriculum sources such as www.Sonlight.com and www.AmblesideOnline.org have assembled very nice booklists to choose from. Also – don’t forget about biographies. If your son or daughter is particularly interested in sports, the arts, science, etc., help them find good biographies of people in those fields and you’ll be amazed how much history they learn in the process.

Following are some ideas for DVDs (your library or Netflix may have them) to help provide visual background and drama to the events we read about. There are of course lots of war and holocaust movies out there but you must decide carefully how much gore, suffering and killing kids really need to see to understand what happened. Even teens accustomed to role-playing video games can get pretty shook up watching a movie like Platoon or Schindler’s List, no matter how good it is. My kids were so upset just reading books about the holocaust that I didn’t think they needed to see it too.


The First World War – The Complete Series

All Quiet on the Western Front (Universal Cinema Classics)

Riding the Rails

Mr. Smith Goes to Washington

Of Mice & Men

American Experience – Eleanor Roosevelt

American Experience: FDR

World War II – When Lions Roared

The War – A Film By Ken Burns and Lynn Novick

Hitler: A Career

Triumph of the Will

The Edward R. Murrow Collection

Trinity & Beyond – The Atomic Bomb Movie

In the Shadow of the Moon

October Sky (Special Edition)

Thirteen Days (Infinifilm Edition)

Citizen King

Path to War

The Fog of War – Eleven Lessons from the Life of Robert S. McNamara


Manufacturing Consent – Noam Chomsky and the Media

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